Light is a common theme throughout the Bible.
The Old Testament tells us that God began creation with the words, “Let there be light”. Moses and the prophets instructed the people that, if they keep God’s commandments, they would always walk in the light. Later on, God promised his people, Israel, that they themselves would be a light to the nations.
In the New Testament, Jesus calls himself the “Light of the World.” He promised his disciples that anyone who follows him would not be in the dark but would have the light of life. And in today’s gospel, he tells his disciples that they are the light of the world and challenges them to let their good deeds shine for all people to see so that they will give praise to their Heavenly Father.
It is easy for us to understand what Jesus means when he talks about light. More obscure is the image of salt. While the theme of light runs through much of the Bible, only rarely do we hear salt being mentioned. In fact, today’s gospel is the only time Jesus speaks about it. It is mentioned only two other times in the New Testament and only about five times in the Old Testament.
Why would Jesus choose to use the image of salt in today’s reading, and what possible meaning could he have?
First of all, in ancient times, salt was a costly and precious commodity. It was so valuable, in fact, that soldiers accepted it as payment for their services. Our English word, “salary”, is taken from the Latin word for salt. And so, by calling us the “salt of the Earth”, Jesus is telling us that we are precious and valuable. Every follower of Jesus, no matter how humble matters to God and his Kingdom.
Secondly, in the ancient world, before refrigerators and cooling systems, salt was used to preserve meat from going bad. Especially in desert climates, fish and meat were in such short supply that people could not afford to buy them fresh. And if they killed a lamb or goat, they would not be able to eat all the meat at once, so salt would be added to preserve it for use at a later time.
For that reason, it was very important that salt be pure. If there were any impurities or contaminants in it, the meat would be ruined. Then both the salt and the meat would have to be thrown away, and all the hard work and expense of getting it would have been wasted.
So, when Jesus calls his disciples, “the salt of the earth”, he is telling them that, as salt keeps meat fresh, they are to preserve his message and keep it pure for future generations of disciples. He wanted the good news of the Father’s love and the story of his death and resurrection to be remembered so that others would come to believe. It would be the task of Jesus’ followers to preserve the memory of all that he said and did.
Two thousand years later, that task falls to us who have come to believe in the message that has been handed down to us. As “salt of the earth” we are to keep Jesus’ message fresh first of all by living it and, secondly, by passing it on to others. The Church has no more important task than that of preserving the message of Jesus Christ faithfully in every generation. In today’s world, there is a lot of pressure on the Church to change that teaching to fit modern biases and ways of thinking. If we were to do so, we would be betraying Christ who entrusted it to us and charged us with passing it on whole and entire. If we were to change the teaching of Jesus to suit modern sensibilities and tastes, using opinion polls as our guide rather than the enduring word of God, then our salt would lose its flavor.
For us to accomplish our task of preserving God’s word for all people to hear, we must keep ourselves pure. Just as salt that is contaminated ruins the meat it was meant to keep fresh, so we render God’s word meaningless if it does not change the way we live. If we are not different because of our faith - if we gossip or drink too much or ignore the poor - then we cannot convince anyone that God’s word is worth hearing and heeding. We have lost our flavor, and our witness is worthless.
How can we as a community of faith answer Jesus’ call to us to be salt for the earth? Today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us how.
The people of Israel had been complaining to God asking him why their prayers were not being answered. Through the prophet, God gives an answer. If they want God to take care of them, then they need to start taking care of the poor in their midst.
The message is the same for us here today. We will earn our salt as followers of Christ by attending to the needs of those we meet. By putting the needs of others before our own, by sacrificing ourselves to enrich others, we will show that we are disciples of Jesus, and more people will be drawn to the gospel message.
Each of us is precious in God’s eyes. He is counting on us to bring his message of love to everyone we meet by living holy lives and by attending to the needs of all those we meet.
We cannot do it alone. We must be salt and light to one another, supporting each other as we reach out to those in need.
And we must turn to Jesus and ask for his Spirit to help us live up to this calling so that our salt will not lose its flavor but lead others to taste how good our God is.